“I’ll take it,” said Ryan to the astonished owner. “I’d like to move in within a week.”
It was an old dilapidated bungalow, the rafters rotten, the plaster peeling. But it had an air of seclusion about it, which was essential for Ryan’s work. With people around him, it was difficult to concentrate. So he had taken a holiday from his family.
“But the building isn’t safe, Sir,” said the owner. “I’d get into trouble with the authorities if there is an accident.”
“I’ll take the risk. After all, it’s just a matter of one year.”
The house was ideally placed in a large compound, completely invisible from the road. To the west and the south, there were no residential buildings. But from a window in the east wing, Ryan had a clear view of the neighbor’s house. It was a solid stone structure, and reminded him of the” old woman who lived in a shoe.” The house teemed with children of every size.
“I won’t let them distract me,” he thought. “If I only strike up a friendship with them, it would defeat the entire purpose of taking up this house. They’ll be swarming all over the place.”
The eldest girl, he observed, was about twenty years old. She had a fair complexion, and long raven tresses that reached up to her knees. She moved among them like a little mother, now laughing at their jokes, now reproving them for their mischief, now picking up the little urchin, who was bringing down the roof with his shrieks.
The loaded lorry which brought in his crates, excited much curiosity among the neighbors’ children
“What does he have in all those boxes? He could very well be a smuggler.”
“Yes, there must be something fishy about the business he is doing. Who but a wicked man could live in such a musty, crumbling house?”
“Now children,” said Tania, “Don’t pass judgment on a poor man. He must be an artist of some sort, who likes to have a bit of privacy. We better not pry into his affairs.”
“Tania, you can be so unexciting. He’s sure to be a crook. I’m going to keep my eyes open.”
“Or perhaps he’s a spy, and has all kinds of gadgets in his boxes – secret transmitters and receiver sets. I’ll try to investigate.”
The spacious hall was converted into a studio. The pieces were unpacked and mounted on wooden pedestals. All of them unfinished. Ryan’s love for sculpture was frowned upon by his father, who thought it was so much waste of time. He was disturbed too often while he worked that eventually he would lose interest in what he had started, and soon set it aside.
“I must complete them all,” he said to himself. “In a year from now, I shall have them on display, at the Art gallery.”
If he worked throughout the day, he’d finish well before the appointed time.
The stillness of his surroundings was broken only by the rap of the chisel on marble. He worked long hours without stopping. At about 4 p.m , he began to feel the pangs of hunger. He drank a bottle of milk and nibbled at a bun which the caretaker had provided for him. Then he walked over to the east side window, and looked down at the house of his noisy neighbors. Everything was silent. Perhaps the children were at school. But under a tree in the garden, was Tania. She sat on a swing, rocking the youngest baby in her lap.
Ryan stood there, looking at her for a long time. Something stirred within him. She looked such a picture of peace. She was crooning softly to the baby. He reluctantly tore himself from the window and went back to the studio, to work until dusk. Then he decided to stroll into town and have a bite at a way-side café.
Two mischievous boys from the neighbor’s house saw him leave. They crept in through the hedge, deciding to investigate. As they were prying through the windows, the caretaker descended on them. He had been specially instructed by Ryan, to keep intruders away. The caretaker caught them by their collars.
“Now what are you peeping at, you naughty boys?”
“We just wanted to get acquainted with our new neighbor.”
“If you know what’s good for you, keep out of his way. He does a lot of carving you know, and young boys are his particular delight.”
“You mean he carves up young boys?”
“Both young and old. But the young ones are his special delight.”
“And what does he do after carving them?”
“What does anybody do after carving something?”
The boys grew pale with fright.
“You mean he eats them?”
The caretaker had only meant to tell them that the tenant of the house was a sculptor, but the boys had misunderstood. Perhaps this was a blessing. Now they’d think twice before snooping. He could tell they were very mischievous.
“Yes,” he said, “Now if you know what’s good for you, you’ll run for your lives. And don’t ever come back again. The master will be back any moment now.”
The boys rushed off as though the devil were after them.
“Tania…. Tania… guess what? We have a man-eater in the next house.”
“Hush boys, you talk such rubbish.”
“I believe he carves up young and old, but boys are his special delight.”
“And who told you about it? Did you meet him?”
“We saw him go out. Didn’t get a clear look at his face, as it was dark. So we crawled in through the hedge to see what he was up to. The old caretaker descended on us, and frightened us out of our wits.”
“Now you’ll know better than to snoop into other people’s affairs. If he’s a man-eater, he’ll be raving mad that he missed you. So both of you better steer clear of his house.”
When Ryan returned, the caretaker told him about the boys.
“Keep it up. I want no visitors,” he said, laughing to himself.
It became customary for Ryan to stand at the east window and watch Tania as she sat on the swing with the baby. She had striking features and the sculptor in Ryan, wanted to mould her in marble. But before that, he wanted to tidy up the studio, and complete the pieces he had already started. Many a time, he longed to go across to the neighbor’s house and have a chat with her, but decided against it. He had resolved to let nothing disturb him at his work, and Tania would definitely be a distraction if he let her.
His work was over at last. The pieces that he had started years ago, as the whim seized him and then left unfinished, had all been completed. Ryan was a Science student. But his passion for sculpture sometimes overpowered him and made him forget his studies. Now his examinations were over, and he had taken a long holiday from College. His mother generously supplied him with money, and encouraged her son in his hobby. Soon, his one-man show would be held at the local Art gallery. He would send his father an invitation.
“I’d like to see his expression. Will he still think it a waste of time? Or will he concede that I am an artist in my own right?”
And so, Ryan settled down to his last piece of sculpture. It was to be his best. If he worked hard and long, perhaps he would finish within a couple of months. He was going to sculpt Tania. Over the months, he had watched her carefully. He knew each feature from memory. There was something sad about this girl. She wasn’t a giddy young thing like girls of her age. Her’s was a subdued nature, soft and gentle like the breeze that whispered in the trees. He had never enjoyed his work so much. His fingers thrilled to the touch of marble, as each little curve of her body took shape. He worked tirelessly, forgetting food and sleep. This statue had become an obsession, and until it was complete he could never rest. At last, after a few months of rigorous effort, it was over. He thought it had a striking resemblance to the model. Perhaps the original was far more beautiful, but as a work of art he had excelled himself. He planted a kiss on those cold lips.
“Soon my love, I shall get to know you better.”
The day of the exhibition was set. Invitations were printed and circulated to friends. Posters were displayed at prominent locations. Even the newspapers carried the announcement. Ryan decided to call on his neighbors and personally hand over the invitation. Taking pains over his appearance, he knocked on their door. The head of the family was at home.
“Welcome. So you are our mysterious neighbor! Well, the boys have been telling me that you are an ogre at carving up people.”
Ryan laughed. “I am a sculptor. Had to finish a lot of work, and didn’t want to be disturbed. I’m through now, and you can count on me to be more sociable.”
“I’m glad you’ve relieved us of our doubts and anxieties.”
“I’d like you to come over for my exhibition at the Art gallery. It’s on Sunday. So I know you can make it.”
“Yes, perhaps we could all come. We seldom move out as a family.”
Ryan had a glimpse of Tania. She was listening to the conversation, and smiling to herself. He longed to see the expression on her face, when she saw her own likeness in marble.
The day of the exhibition finally arrived. Crowds filed past the exhibits, admiring each piece of work. His parents too had arrived. He didn’t go up to them, but watched their expressions from a vantage point. His father seemed to be gloating over his son’s success. He eyed each piece critically, then lingered beside the likeness of Tania. His mother dabbed her eyes as she ran her fingers over the smooth cheek of the statue. There were many who stood before this piece, and sighed and exclaimed at its beauty.
The neighbors were the last to arrive. They seemed delighted with each exhibit. All except Tania, who looked vaguely around her, not paying particular attention to the exhibits.
“Oh God!” thought Ryan, “She doesn’t appreciate my work. If only she would look carefully.”
At last, the group stood before the sculpture of Tania. The boys cried in unison, “Look Tania, it’s you. He’s carved you.”
“My, what a striking resemblance!” said her father.
“And when did you pose for him?” asked her mother.
Tania still hung around with no particular reaction to what they were saying, until one of the boys took her hand and placed it on the statue. As her long fingers caressed each curve, she smiled to herself.
“No, it can’t be. Oh my God!” cried Ryan as the truth hit him. His beautiful model would never be able to see the work of his hands.